Tenth European Center for Peace and Development (ECPD) International
Belgrade, Serbia, 25 October 2014
Second ECPD Youth Forum
Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
The youth are the future of the Balkans, and they are the best educated and most networked generation in history. But youth today are faced with an economic crisis, lack of employment, social challenges and environmental risks that threaten their future. Faced with threats of global collapse to which governments seem incapable of responding, youth have the options of denial, depression, retreat into nationalism or fundamentalism, revolution, or constructive change. To empower Balkan youth with hope through constructive change, we need to give them a vision of a higher human purpose; an understanding of the forces driving change and the nature of the transformation taking place in Europe and the world; a concept of a better society and values worth working for; and a recognition that their individual behaviour and contributions to their local community are entirely their own responsibility.
It is quite normal that the youth of today are steeped in pessimism and uncertainty about the future. Rapid change and globalization are stressing economic and social systems, cultures, institutions, and value systems. Persistent poverty seems coupled with extreme wealth. Our economy seems incapable of creating adequate employment for all those who want to work. The result is increasing insecurity and social breakdown. Alongside this are accelerating environmental degradation, climate change, and the resulting population displacements, not to mention the growing risks to human health from life-style diseases, antibiotic resistance and epidemics. We are reaching peak youth with the proportion of youth in the human population the highest ever, and they are better educated and networked than ever before, but for the first time in modern history, their prospects are less good than those of their parents.
The society of today only proposes one option: materialism. "Materialism, rooted in the West, has now spread to every corner of the planet, breeding, in the name of a strong global economy and human welfare, a culture of consumerism. It skilfully and ingeniously promotes a habit of consumption that seeks to satisfy the basest and most selfish desires, while encouraging the expenditure of wealth so as to prolong and exacerbate social conflict. One result is a deepening confusion on the part of young people everywhere, a sense of hopelessness in the ranks of those who would drive progress, and the emergence of a myriad social maladies." (UHJ 2010)
This situation should be no surprise. Back in 1972, the report to the Club of Rome on "The Limits to Growth" (Meadows et al. 1972) questioned the future of the consumer society, with scenarios that suggested that "business as usual" could lead to the collapse of civilization before the middle of this century. Where are we now? Scientists have recently plotted the actual course of civilization along the scenarios of 40 years ago, and we are right on track. The only difference is that the alternative of a smooth transition to sustainability no longer seems a realistic possibility (MacKenzie 2012).
One of the authors of that study, Jorgen Randers, frustrated at forty
years of failure to warn society of what was coming, has published his own
forecast for the next forty years (Randers 2012).
Since democratic systems and the capitalist economy always choose the
least-cost short-term solution, we only change when we have to, and it is
always too little, too late. He predicts that GDP growth will slow, and
occur mostly in China and emerging economies; rich countries will stop
growing and the USA will decline. There will be enough resources to meet
demand but not need, with 5 billion people still poor in 2052, and 1
billion still starving. Nothing will be done to address extremes of wealth
and poverty, leading to increasing inequity in the rich world, and
producing more social instability. The young will rebel against their
elders enjoying their comfortable retirements while leaving their
grandchildren to pay the price for their excesses. Among the wildcards he
sees as possibly upsetting his forecast are a financial meltdown,
revolution in the USA, and a generational rebellion. Behind his
predictions are five central issues:
• capitalism leads inevitably to extremes of wealth and poverty;
• economic growth produces over-consumption;
• democracy is too slow for the changes that are necessary;
• intergenerational harmony will fail, and
• the climate will become increasingly unstable, with possible catastrophic changes shortly after his forty year time frame.
Another researcher, Peter Turchin, has used his skills as a mathematical ecologist to analyze historical cycles (Turchin 2006). Among his findings is a 200-year cycle in civilization. A civilization or empire depends on social cohesion, which he measures with the indicator collective violence. The population grows and technology improves, creating wealth which is collected by the elite. Reaching some limit produces an oversupply of labour, pushing workers deeper into poverty, but the poor do not revolt. The upper class continues to expand, but as wealth becomes more concentrated, their youth have no prospects, leading to factionalism, anarchy and collapse, after which the process starts over again. Based on his modeling, he predicted political instability and impending crisis in Western Europe and the USA peaking in 2020. To avoid this, we need to reduce social inequality (Turchin 2010).
Faced with such disturbing visions of the future, the usual responses are denial, depression or action, in that order. For young people, the options for action are revolution, turning to the apparent security of nationalism or fundamentalism, or working for the transition to sustainability. Revolution is dangerous and seldom successful. The nationalistic dream of returning to a better past, or the search for certainty in a fundamentalist interpretation of a religion, are both negative responses pitting one group against others, and leading to conflict. What then is required to turn Balkan youth toward positive action, laying the foundations for a new more united and sustainable society?
Hope springs from moral principles and ethical values that highlight the potential for good in human beings, rather than seeing them has inherently aggressive and selfish. Such values can provide a new foundation for social organization, and can empower youth to accelerate the transition. Unlike past centuries, when wise old men let the important transitions (think of Woodrow Wilson, Robert Schuman, Nelson Mandela), the youth of today have access to knowledge through the Internet, and a capacity for networking and organization, at a scale no previous generation has experienced. This gives them an unimaginable potential for change, provided they can agree on a vision of where they want to go (Dahl 2014).
What we need is an alternative to the consumer society that is sufficiently attractive to overcome resistance and habit, worth sacrificing the superficial for what is deeper and more fundamentally rewarding, and combines individual transformation with social action. There is no one utopian vision of the ideal future. This has been tried in the past and failed, and modern systems science shows this is not the right approach (Dahl 1996, Capra & Luisi 2014). The alternative is a positive process of constructive change based on certain ground rules or values that will allow a diversity of approaches to advance with some coherence.
Fundamental to this is an acknowledgement that there is a higher human purpose then being obedient consumers. "How... can we resolve the paralyzing contradiction that, on the one hand, we desire a world of peace and prosperity, while, on the other, much of economic and psychological theory depicts human beings as slaves to self-interest? The faculties needed to construct a more just and sustainable social order―moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice and service to the common good―have too often been dismissed as naïve ideals. Yet, it is these, and related qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production." (BIC 2010)
The process needs to follow certain logical steps: a) Rethink the purpose of development and the need to respect planetary sustainability. b) Formulate the ethical principles necessary to guide our collective actions as communities and social groups. c) Focus on the ground rules for social organization. d) Encourage a diversity of solutions that can adapt to each environment and culture while ensuring coherence as society advances. e) Do not waste energy revolting against the present system; it will probably collapse by itself. f) Start now with small scale experiments with alternatives, that can be scaled up as opportunities present themselves.
What then are some of the moral or ethical principles that we need to start with? "The moral dimensions of just and peaceful human relations include the generation of knowledge, the cultivation of trust and trustworthiness, eradication of racism and violence, promotion of art, beauty, science, and the capacity for collaboration and the peaceful resolution of conflicts." (BIC 2010)
The values for a sustainable society need to include justice, trust, moderation, humility, confidence and courage. Justice and equity are essential for lasting social cohesion. "Social justice will be attained only when every member of society enjoys a relative degree of material prosperity and gives due regard to the acquisition of spiritual qualities. The solution, then, to prevailing economic difficulties is to be sought as much in the application of spiritual principles as in the implementation of scientific methods and approaches." (UHJ 2010)
Trust and trustworthiness are difficult to build and easy to lose, yet society cannot function without them. They depend on honesty and reliability, and are the foundation of contracts and work relationships. They are also a bulwark against corruption. Trust is equally important in the relationships between states. If governments cannot trust each other to respect their engagements, agreements that require shared efforts become impossible.
Moderation in material civilization is an application of the ancient concept of the golden mean. It is the foundation of sustainability. Two quotations from the Baha'i writings illustrate the collective and individual implications of the principle. “The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men.” “Take from this world only to the measure of your needs, and forego that which exceedeth them.” (Bahá'u'lláh 1817-1892)
Many of the problems we face in governance and management, the economy and society, derive from the traits of ego and self-interest, and the resulting desire for power and domination, that we cultivate rather than combat. Yet all the great spiritual traditions teach humility and emphasize the value of serving others and preferring others to oneself. The ideal would be to never consider oneself above someone else. This can be an antidote to pride and the egocentric search for power and wealth that corrupts much political and corporate leadership. It is also the ideal lubricant for social relationships. It can inspire everyone to bring themselves to account each day in an effort to improve.
Confidence is becoming a scarce resource in a world facing so many threats. Yet cultivating a positive outlook reinforces hope, makes it possible to discover the qualities in oneself and in others, and ensures freedom from prejudices rooted in fear of the unknown. It motivates lifelong education, and inspires confidence both in one's own advancement and in that of society.
It will be obvious that all of this requires courage. Life is never easy, and there are always difficulties and challenges to overcome. We need the courage to take risks, to innovate, to make mistakes and learn from them. Children who are accustomed to hardship from an early age will not expect an easy life, and will go much further in fulfilling their potential and in contributing to society
Once we understand the dynamics of the evolving global system, and the natural processes of disintegration and construction, we can understand that change is an opportunity. The collapse of the old system can encourage creativity and innovation. In a globalizing world, human society must evolve a whole new set of institutions and functional relationships at the global level and below it. The kind of ethics and human values mentioned above can provide the operating code for the newly evolving systems, in which information and knowledge will play a central role and material well-being will be adapted to planetary limits and sustainability (Dahl 1996).
Like navigators in troubled waters, the Balkan youth, looking to the future, will have to practice adaptive management, but you also need a vision of where you want to go, which obviously includes a better society and economy. While navigating change, it helps to know your ultimate destination. There are many potential visions of a just and sustainable future society. Most people will agree that they want a world that is more peaceful, just, secure and prosperous. Imagining such a world and the steps one might take now in order to build it can be a significant support to a hopeful viewpoint.
Too often we think that the problems of the world are too big, and nothing we can do will make any difference. Yet it is important to feel that you are the master of your own destiny. The hopelessness when faced with overwhelming problems can be overcome by taking charge of ourselves and acknowledging our responsibility for our own individual development. We can show moral courage and live by our ethical principles. In the process we build a momentum for positive change. Successes at this level are mutually reinforcing.
We are also part of families, live in a community, and have relationships in our workplace and social networks. We can therefore invest in improving our family life and community, contribute to the education of the next generation, and reinforce solidarity and collective action to solve problems. Each of us is capable of taking part in meaningful discussions with those around us. A community can also establish spiritual ties through local devotional gatherings and worship, regardless of particular religions or beliefs.
How de we get there? It is obvious to anyone who has understood our current predicament that a fundamental transition is inevitable, whether it be evolutionary or catastrophic. At a time of rapid change and possible breakdown in the institutions of society, the best insurance is community solidarity. We need to mobilize youth, who are best able to invest in the future, and empower them with the knowledge, values and vision necessary. This will require detachment from the present system, so that we do not cling to things that are dysfunctional. We should make the “pull” of the new vision stronger than the “push” out of the old system. In a society with too many poor and unemployed, we need to steer all that wasted human capacity in constructive directions. The years ahead will be difficult, but there is still reason for hope.
Bahá'í International Community. 2010. Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism. Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, New York, 3 May 2010. http://bic.org/statements-and-reports/bic-statements/10-0503.htm
Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CLXIV, p. 342-343. Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust.
Bahá'u'lláh, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 193. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 2002
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Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 1996. The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis. London: Zed Books Ltd, and Oxford: George Ronald.
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MacKenzie, Debora. 2012 Doomsday Book. New Scientist, 7 January 2012, pp. 38-41.
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Universal House of Justice. 2010. To the believers in the Cradle of the Faith, 2 April 2010 (Letter from the International Baha'i Council)